Friday, October 11, 1996
A graceful, grateful lilt honors Irish

The Cincinnati Enquirer

In the shade of a sycamore on Bicentennial Commons, yesterday dances a jig with today and tomorrow. Past, present and future are entwined in the words on a historical marker.

''In memory of the Irish people who left a country where only their rivers run free.''

That's how the inscription begins.

This is how it ends:

''The descendants of Irish immigrants hope that our hands will ever be extended in friendship and never in want.''

That's a far cry from the dull stuff usually engraved on these signs. They typically begin with the word In. Then, a date. As the other words plod along, the mind wanders, followed closely by the feet as they walk away.

Read on

The dry prose on most markers leaves their message unread and their history unappreciated.

But not this one. Titled ''The Irish In Cincinnati,'' it's set to be dedicated at noon Sunday. That's when proper recognition will be given to its opening and closing sentences.

The words have a musical lilt to them. No wonder. They were written by a woman whose fondest memories are of her mother working around the house and singing Irish lullabies.

''My mother's mother came from Ireland,'' says the writer, Jane Davoran, a Cincinnati Bell retiree. ''People left there because they were not free to work, free to practice their religion, free to go to school, free to own property.

''They weren't even free to fish the rivers. Only the rivers ran free.''

The Ohio runs free past the marker. It stands as a compass of the soul pointing toward the past and into the future.

''We have to remember our ancestors,'' says Eileen McNeill. ''They came to America and braved so much to find a new life. They gave us our heritage.''

Her father, Charlie O'Donnell, left Ireland in 1923. He came to Cincinnati with a new bride, tended bar for a time and then worked as a guard at Union Terminal. He died when Eileen was 5.

''I don't remember much about my dad,'' she says. But what he did in his life, leaving the things people hold most precious - his family and his homeland - for the concept of freedom, has been on her mind for two years. That's how long his daughter, co-chair of Tri-State United Irish, an alliance of 16 local groups with spiritual, cultural and historical ties to Ireland, has been pushing for this marker to be placed at Bicentennial Commons.

The right spot

Many 19th century Irish immigrants came ashore in Cincinnati at the site of 20th century Bicentennial Commons. Fleeing the famines of the 1840s and 1850s, they settled down by the river, on downtown's lower east side before heading for Mount Adams, Lockland, Glendale, Northside, Sedamsville, Cumminsville, Price Hill and Westwood.

''You lose so much,'' Eileen McNeill insists, ''if you don't look back on your heritage.''

Her words remind me of my Irish roots and my great-great-grandfather, John Glasheen. He was 30 in 1850 when he left Ireland for America aboard a ship called the Empire State. Among the other Irish immigrants on board was 18-year-old Mary Reilly.

No one knows whether they knew each other before the ship sailed. Or whether they had a shipboard romance. This is known: They got married in Cincinnati.

They settled in what was then - and still is - a very German town. A family story has them walking up Vine Street. They pass beer garden after beer garden with all their signs written in German. Except one. That one was in English. And, it read: No Irish.

''Your relatives gave you so much, you wouldn't want to forget them,'' Eileen McNeill says. ''Remember, you are the way you are because of them.''

That's what gives this metal sign a universal appeal. It does more than point out a group of immigrants' contributions to Cincinnati - for instance, the family of James Gamble, Procter & Gamble Co.'s co-founder, is from Northern Irish stock.

In its larger framework, the marker acts as everyone's reminder. If you fail to remember where you come from, you'll forget where you are going.